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How can I defend myself against reclining airplane seats?

Recently, more than one reader has written to ask about the use of seatbacks on cramped airplane seats. Or, more to the point, whether there’s any way to defend yourself from the particularly obnoxious person in the seat in front of you.

One reader says, “I flew back from Denver to Newark on Continental last week. The man in front of me put his seat back early and left it that way. He was very comfortable the whole trip. I would have asked him to change seats with me but he had his wife and daughter next to him and I was alone. The plane was full so there was no escape for me. Now, this can’t be the first complaint about recliners. It is most uncomfortable for the passengers behind them. Is there any hope for us who find recliners very irritating and inconsiderate?”

Another reader writes, “Last winter our flight to Paris started off fine, but as soon as the seatbelt light went off the passenger in front of me wanted to lean his seat back. Reasonable. The only problem is that I’m six-and-a-half feet tall, and there was absolutely no room for him to recline without crushing my knees. Fortunately the flight attendant found another passenger in an exit row that switched with us and all were happy. On our return trip we requested exit row seating for the extra legroom and luckily we were accommodated, but that seemed like a hit or miss proposition at the check-in counter. What if there were no other seats to move us to? Does the passenger in front of me causing me physical pain have the right to recline?”

As far as I can tell, travelers have the “right” to recline their seats at any time. I’ve never seen any airline rules limiting how much one passenger’s seat can recline if the person behind objects. So any solution to the problem requires some combination of tact, cooperation, and—maybe—willpower.

When you encounter that seatback-in-the-face problem, the first solution is, of course, a polite request from you directly, or through a flight attendant, that the individual not recline so far. Unfortunately, anyone who is boorish enough to flop a seatback in your face will probably ignore any polite requests.

Sensing a market, Right Brain Ltd. developed “Knee Defender,” a set of two plastic blocks that travelers can wedge between the tray-table support and the seatback in the row ahead. Those blocks physically prevent the seat from reclining. Airlines generally don’t like Knee Defenders, given that their use has generated some heated airborne confrontations between blocker and blockee. Moreover, a determined recliner frustrated by Knee Defenders can push his/her seat back strongly enough to break the tray-table support.

The only real solution would be for airlines to install seats that don’t recline. Ryanair is doing just that, but not out of consideration for passenger comfort. Instead, it’s to save money on seat cost and weight and to be able to squeeze seats even closer together than they are now. No-recline probably wouldn’t work with any good-size US airline, since they typically use planes for red-eye and late evening flights when travelers really need a bit of recline.

Overall, the seat recline problem is a subset of a whole list of potential sources of friction in a full coach airplane cabin. Other problems include oversize folks who encroach on your limited seat space, those who carry on loud conversations when others want to sleep, crying babies, squirming kids who kick and poke those around and ahead of them, teenagers who play their portable audio devices so loud that you can’t avoid hearing what passes for “music” among the young, travelers who obviously haven’t had a bath or shower in several days, and travelers at window seats who have to get up and go to the lavatory every 15 minutes.

My two major annoyances are travelers who chew gum noisily and those who demand I lower my window shade when I don’t care about the movie and would rather read by natural daylight than by the one-candlepower “reading” light the airline provides. I suspect that the proposal to allow use of cell phones in flight will engender a whole new category of airborne pest. The only such issue that airlines have actually done something about is oversize/overweight travelers: Some lines now require such travelers to buy two seats.

The traditional remedies for travelers seated next to/behind/in front of travel pests have been (1) to ask, politely, that the pest stop doing whatever is annoying you, or (2) to ask for a different seat assignment. Unfortunately, in these days of full planes, seat reassignments are often impossible, and flight attendants may be too busy or disinterested to do anything.

The only surefire ways to minimize the potential problems are (1) to fly on an airline with above-average seat space in coach, (2) to fly (and pay extra for) premium economy on one of the few lines that offer it, or (3) to request an extra-roomy exit-row seat on your next flight. All too often, however, once your flight has started, you can’t do much other than hope for better luck next time.

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